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Don't Call Bernie Sanders And Joe Biden "Friends"

The future of Bernie Sanders' movement has been transformed in the Time of Biden. But the progressive leader isn't backing away.

Last updated on September 14, 2020, at 6:34 p.m. ET

Posted on September 14, 2020, at 3:37 p.m. ET

It bothers Jane Sanders when people say her husband is “friends” with Joe Biden. To be clear, she said, he isn’t, they aren’t, etc. Not even in the Washington sense of the word. The characterization is one she regards as false and in need of correction, which she issued at multiple points in the course of a phone call last month from Burlington, Vermont, as one might clear up an incorrect name, date, or place: “We don’t go out together. We don’t get dinner together. We work together, all of us, whether it’s Jill and me, or Joe and Bernie. It's built on work — and there are differences.”

“There are definitely differences!” Jane said.

And yet, there it is again. That word: friends, friends, friends. Ever since the end of the campaign, she’s seen it crop up in the coverage. “People somehow keep on referring to ‘Oh, we’re friends,’” she said, sounding resigned to it now.

That fact that Bernie Sanders has both repeatedly and literally said the words “Joe is a friend” is, it seems, beside the point. (Other public statements include “Joe is my friend,” “Joe is a good friend,” and “I like Joe.”) The distinction made by Jane, his partner of nearly 40 years and his closest political adviser, has less to do with the nuances of male friendship — though imagine for a moment Joe and Bernie “hanging out” (texting?) — or the generational warmth that bonds two 1940s-born men who served together in the Senate and share a certain respect and reverence for the institution.

The sensitivity lies somewhere beyond that, between Biden, Sanders, and a third party: the movement.

“Everybody keeps on acting like, ‘Well, Bernie pulled his punches because they're friends,’” Jane said. “He didn't pull his punches. They fought on issues, you know?”

During the Democratic primary, a long race that drew a total of 27 candidates before narrowing to the two men, some Sanders campaign aides pleaded with their boss to go harder on Biden’s record. To their eyes, it was exactly the kind of incremental, “same old, same old status quo” politics they viewed as wrong on the issues (Iraq, trade, health care) and unexciting in a general election against Donald Trump. At turns, Sanders challenged Biden, then pulled back — only ever willing to go so far. He did like Joe. And he said so publicly. Privately, he was willing to admit the obvious, which was that he liked Joe a lot better than the last Democrat who beat him, a fact that still enrages parts of the Hillary Clinton community. This time, when the primary ended in early April, the two candidates set up six task forces, each one jointly staffed by Sanders and Biden’s people, to come up with policy recommendations. Over the summer, the two candidates stayed in touch via phone. Their wives, Jane and Jill, exchanged texts. The Sanders family, who spent their quarantine at home in Burlington, has a certain faith in Biden — one they never felt with Clinton — that he is not only willing to listen to the left, but “has recognized,” Jane said, “that the world has changed a bit.”

The future of Sanders’s movement — the rage against the establishment, the “political revolution” and his role in it — seems suddenly transformed in the Time of Biden.

For more than five years, a big share of the progressive movement has been tied to the personal identity and political future of a candidate who has now run his last national campaign. At 79, Sanders has said he won’t run for president again. His movement shaped a new generation of young progressives, but has no clear successor. His ideas have become “mainstream,” as he often notes, but can claim only a mixed record when it comes to winning elections. In the 2020 presidential race, the movement lost. Early on in the primary, Sanders watched other Democratic candidates back away, one by one, from his signature healthcare plan, Medicare for All, which they’d jumped to cosponsor just two years earlier. When it became a two-man race, a choice between his politics and Biden’s, he found himself losing, badly. And months later, when it came time to pick a vice presidential nominee, Biden passed over an opportunity to appeal to the left, selecting Kamala Harris instead. After she held her first event as his running mate, delivering a speech from A.I. du Pont High School in Wilmington, a reporter shouted across the room: “Sen. Harris, do you support Medicare for All?” If the question answered itself, it didn’t seem to matter. Harris ignored it.

At the same time, Sanders kept an active but quiet presence at home in Burlington, watching with increasing alarm as Trump mishandled the coronavirus crisis, teargassed demonstrators outside the White House, and sent federal agents to American cities. The prospect of Trump's reelection became something more personal for Sanders, stirring up thoughts of his own painful family history, according to three people familiar with his thinking. Growing up with relatives who died in Nazi-occupied Poland, one of those people said, Sanders developed an “acute awareness of how people can get sucked into authoritarianism once the guardrails of democracy come down.” As a child, he cried when he looked at photos in books about the destruction of the Jews. As a politician, “that weighs heavily,” Jane said.

So four months after the end of his presidential campaign, when he returned to the national stage to speak at the Democratic National Convention, Sanders did not say much about the question of his legacy, or the future of his movement, or the way forward for progressives. He spent weeks on the speech — interrogating each sentence, stripping down each point, people close to him said — until the draft fit with mercenary spareness in his allotted time: 1,101 words in 8 minutes and 29 seconds, delivered from the back corner of a restaurant in Burlington called Hen of the Wood. When someone off-camera signaled to him in the silence — “Go,” a woman said — Sanders used his time to make an appeal for Biden’s agenda, separate from his own. “Let me offer you just a few examples of how Joe will move us forward,” he told supporters. The progressive cause was still growing, he said, but this was an “unprecedented moment” that called for a fight “for democracy and decency,” he said — a “movement like never before.”

If there has been a discussion on the left about whether this election was a time to be tough on Biden, or to put aside that debate and focus on defeating Trump, Sanders seemed to land on the latter. His outlook on the race — his polar views of Biden and Trump — has effectively put the "political revolution" on hold until Nov. 3, 2020.

This weekend, when the Washington Post reported that Sanders privately expressed concerns about Biden’s messaging, with top aide Faiz Shakir telling the newspaper that they have “urged” the campaign to focus more on pocketbook issues, the former candidate didn’t deny the substance of the claims. But he still made a point of pushing back on the reports of dissent.

“No,” Sanders told MSNBC on Sunday. “Of course they’re not true.”

Sanders and Biden bump elbows in greeting
Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

Biden (left) and Sanders at the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC, on March 15, 2020.

In one interview after the next, Sanders has said the fight will resume as soon as the election ends. “The day after Biden is elected, we’re gonna have a serious debate about the future of this country,” he’s said. “We will fight about our ideas — we’ll fight about healthcare and education and climate change — after Biden is elected,” he’s said. Biden, he’s said, has the potential to be “the most progressive president” since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

For some of his supporters, this posture is unfamiliar and insufficient. By the time Sanders made his pitch for Biden’s agenda at the convention last month — including, to the dismay of some, his more modest “public option” healthcare plan — about 850 of his own delegates, the supporters representing his campaign at the convention, had already pledged to vote against the Democratic platform. The official if largely symbolic document, outlining the party’s stance on policy every four years, did not endorse Medicare for All. Some of the most prominent voices attached to Sanders’ movement proudly dissented, including his campaign’s national co-chairs, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner and Rep. Ro Khanna, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, one of four progressive women of color in Congress who make up “the Squad.”

“It was a little disappointing but unsurprising,” said Winnie Wong, a veteran of progressive politics who served as a senior adviser on Sanders’ 2020 campaign. “There was no way he would go live and make mention of the fact that nearly his entire delegation is voting ‘no’ on the platform.”

Looking ahead to a potential Biden administration, the question of what Sanders might offer, and what his supporters might want or expect, no longer seems clear-cut.

“Joe Biden won’t be the next FDR unless there are people like Bernie Sanders and other progressive leaders in Congress waking up every single day knowing that their job is not to be friends with Joe Biden,” said David Sirota, one of the campaign officials who pushed Sanders to step up his attacks on Biden during the primary. “Their job is to push Joe Biden whether he likes it or not.

“It can’t be both. You have to choose.”

The former vice president, now 50 days out from the election, has described his relationship with Sanders as a mutual, good-faith partnership: Biden was never going to be for Medicare for All — “I had to be sure that Bernie was serious,” he told the New Yorker, “[that he] wasn’t going to make this an ideological jihad” — but he could see ways to “move further” on the margins. Younger generations, he told the magazine, faced new problems. So they agreed on proposals to lower the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60 and make public college free for families earning less than $125,000.

One campaign aide recalled watching the two men cross paths at a forum in 2019: Biden was in a hallway backstage, off to the side, talking with a small group. Sanders said hello and continued down the hall. Once he was past earshot, Biden made a comment about Bernie being a good guy. When someone in the group countered with a sarcastic remark, Biden quickly cut him off, defending Sanders as a person he’d known for years. “He didn’t have to say anything,” said the person who witnessed the interaction.

At the end of the primary in 2016, Clinton’s team also sat down with Sanders and his staff — mostly to hammer out changes to the Democratic platform — “but we didn’t have the working relationship with her that we do with Biden,” Jane said of the difference. “There’s a mutual respect. There’s a trust and a collegiality.”

There is also none of the bitterness or hurt feelings. At the last Democratic convention, held over four 100-degree days in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, Sanders offered his endorsement from the stage in a half-hour speech, the first eight minutes of which he spent quieting his supporters. He threw his full support behind Clinton, but he also presented the gains of his movement, outlining the changes to the 2016 platform, like battle spoils to the crowd. WikiLeaks had just published 20,000 hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee, some of which showed that party officials serving as neutral arbiters of the primary process had in fact unfairly favored Clinton, and the chaos seemed to validate and crystalize the emotional make-up of Sanders’s movement: the anger at the establishment; the distrust of the political process; the constant state of hyper-vigilance, always bracing for a fight; that interplay between enthusiasm and defiance, one always tingeing the other, until they almost sound the same.

“I feel better about this election than I do about 2016,” Jane said when asked about the difference between this year’s convention and the one four years ago. “It's not personal. It's not like we're…” She stopped, nearly broaching that word again. “It's a different... I don't want to revisit 2016.”

“I just remember that feeling in that convention hall,” she added later. “What the hell are we doing?

Afterward, Sanders traveled the country for Clinton, holding 39 rallies in 13 states on behalf of her campaign. But the end of that race had been a fight — a time to make demands, eke out concessions, and push his agenda on the party. This election has been something different. The convention four years later, an almost entirely digital event, was a more quiet affair, with scarce reference to Sanders or his movement beyond his allotted eight minutes. Outside of the policy task forces, the fight was relegated to a virtual meeting of the rules committee. Sanders appointees, in an episode first reported by Politico, briefly erupted over a motion to “table” — or, in this case, get rid of — a measure that would have limited the influence of corporate money in the party.

“Table till when? Table till when?” one shouted, according to an account of the meeting from three participants. In a separate “breakout room,” a side-call on Zoom in which members could listen in on the main proceedings, more Bernie people started yelling. Then the Biden people were yelling too — they couldn’t hear what was happening. And then soon, everyone was yelling. Expletives could be heard through the noise. In the main room, the meeting continued without interruption. No one could hear them. “Let’s hold up signs,” a Bernie appointee suggested at one point. They were on mute.

Megan Jelinger / Getty Images

Huntington Center is seen empty after Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders canceled his rally planned in Cleveland for coronavirus concerns on March 10, 2020.

Bernie Sanders has already said he won’t run again. He won’t have another national campaign, with the big staff and the plane. There won’t be another Washington headquarters, or a team waiting for him in every state. His rallies, when they return, won’t feel the same. He is no longer a person who might, one day, be president; that special sheen, the thing that obsesses political journalists and supplies constant airtime, has already faded.

Sanders, a man who fields personal questions with impatience and frustration, has only glancingly addressed the topic of his future and the way he now sees his “role.”

Efforts to ascribe meaning and clarity to the moment can seem vague and contradictory: Over the last month, he has been described all at once as cementing his legacy, “passing the baton,” celebrating victory, saying goodbye, entering retirement, forging ahead.

“I hate all these stories,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ 2016 campaign manager and longest-serving strategist, ticking off mock headlines. “‘Progressives post-Bernie’? What are you talking about? ‘Where’s Bernie gone?’? He hasn’t gone anywhere!”

If the idea of Sanders riding off into the sunset seems ridiculous, then so is the suggestion that nothing really changed when he ended his 2020 campaign.

For the staff who worked for him, the final stage of the race rolled in like a weird, bewildering haze. The same day he lost in Michigan, the primary he needed most to keep his campaign alive, Sanders had to turn his plane around, fly home to Vermont, and indefinitely cancel events due to COVID-19. Aides had to cope with the loss in quarantine, isolated alone. There were marathon Zoom calls at first. One group of staffers decided to just stay in Vermont, rent a farm, and live cooperatively. A small group of senior aides are still helping Sanders, but most of the team has processed the end from afar. Hours before Sanders gave his speech last month, former staffers shared an image from the rally where he launched his 2020 bid: Out in the crowd, an early supporter could be seen hoisting a sign, spray-painted with the words “STILL HERE.”

Sanders has split his time this summer between Vermont and Capitol Hill. Last week, he turned 79. Most years, Sanders celebrates his birthday with an annual “Sunset Cruise” aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen, a three-deck ship off the waterfront in Burlington, with live music from his favorite Vermont band, Mango Jam, a six-piece dance band that plays Zydeco and Cajun music. This year, there was no Sunset Cruise. In an email, Mango Jam member Mimi Ryan (alto sax, vocals) cited COVID-19 restrictions and the upcoming election as the likely reason. “Bernie keeps pretty busy, as we all know,” Ryan said. “Maybe 2021.”

The Sanders family is, in fact, still very much in campaign mode. During the recent phone call with Jane, questions about life since the end of the race yielded less in the way of emotional insight than their latest thinking on how best to “communicate effectively” during a pandemic. What sounds at first like a perfectly normal lament about life in quarantine — “it’s still strange not to be out among people,” she started to say — turns out to be a reference in the most literal sense to “being among people.” As in, voters. As in, “How do you campaign during this pandemic?” she said, finishing her thought. “But also, how do you bring people together?”

There is still talk of “our rallies” and the “exhilarating” feeling of thousands of people joining together in a show of force for progressive ideas (and, presumably, for Biden). The couple has turned half their house into a studio, Jane said. “We're on the phone constantly. On conference calls, talking to various people, doing livestreams or Zoom calls. And, you know, writing.”

Most days, Sanders sends his staff text for as many as four or five Facebook posts, which he writes himself for the “Bernie Sanders” account, according to an aide. He has held eight virtual town halls in states like Michigan and Colorado over the last month, events where he appears from Vermont, hunched before a virtually rendered woodland backdrop, talking about the threat posed by Trump.

“Bernie is not our president, but he’s not going away. He’s not,” his wife said. “He will still be a very significant leader and a representative of the people, not just of Vermont, but of the progressives. He is basically here for the movement. He wants to make sure that people understand that the progress we’ve made — it can’t be stopped or disrespected.”

On this question, Bernie and Jane Sanders seem reassured, even if some of their supporters aren’t, that Biden will move toward their agenda, not away from it, if he wins this fall.

“And yes,” Jane said, “we don't get everything all at once.” ●

Bernie Sanders And Joe Biden Are ‘Work Friends’

The future of Bernie Sanders' movement has been transformed in the Time of Biden.


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